Sunday, November 7, 2010

Riding the El - 1 - Sixth Avenue


I hope this material is of interest ... I am very reluctant to receive any acknowledgement, and I much prefer that you alone take the credit, if any, for this particular contribution.

With this note, I received an envelope containing a collection of black and white film negatives in two sizes, '116' (image 2.5 x 4.25 inches) and possibly '105' (image 55 mm x 85mm or about 2 x 3.5 inches). Each piece has just one image on it, but they have numbers handwritten on them that appear to group them into rolls numbered 76 to 141, with gaps.

All of them document tours of the elevated railways in Manhattan in about 1938.

Here I will show the eight images of roll 76 and two of roll 77, both '116' film. This format was used in Brownie cameras and other snapshot cameras with a fixed focus and exposure. It usually had eight images per roll. The only processing I did was to choose a reasonable light-dark balance for each image.

Roll 76 documents a ride downtown on the Sixth Avenue El. The photographer left the train at a few stations to take pictures. Roll 77, three images (one very blurry), documents a ride back uptown, maybe immediately following 76. Click each image to enlarge.

76-1. 53rd St looking east between Eighth and Seventh Avenues.

The Sixth Ave El ran down Columbus and Ninth Avenues and then east on 53rd St three blocks to Sixth Avenue. The switches evident at the bottom of the image are from a third track in the vicinity of the Eighth Ave station. The point of view, the front window of a train, would have been steady only when the train was stopped at that station.

76-2. Sixth Avenue looking downtown from 50th St station. Rockefeller Center is on the left.

Pipe railings. Crook lampposts. Wood plank platform. The narrow two-track el left open sky over the sidewalks and over part of the roadway on each side.

Recent art deco buildings on the left. Some of the buildings on the right, like the one with the 'PETTIT' sign, are about as old as the el, sixty years in 1938.

I cannot identify the thin structure passing over the el in the distance.

The type of structure in Sixth Avenue was different from all the other elevated railways in New York. The primary longitudinal support was a truss along each side, which you can see past the station platform, instead of stringer beams under each rail.

76-3. Sixth Avenue looking uptown from the downtown platform of 23rd St station.

From Google Streetview I can identify the large building on the right as being on the northeast corner.

The footbridge is puzzling. An image of this station from 1878 shows that it was not original. How important was it to allow passengers to cross to the other side? Would passengers prefer to go up and over a footbridge rather than cross Sixth Avenue at street level? Someone must have thought so.

Advertising posters under the platform were only found on the el, never the subway.

77-3. Sixth Avenue looking south from the uptown platform at 8th Street station. Up ahead the el curves left into 3rd St to get to West Broadway.

The buildings along the east side of Sixth Avenue, on the left, were removed in the late 1920s to permit construction of the Independent Subway, which is wider than Sixth Avenue in the area of West 4th Street station.

Most of the buildings on the right side are still there.

76-4. West Broadway looking downtown from Franklin St station.

Google Streetview shows that the large white building on the left and the art deco building on the right are still there at Worth St, two blocks south of Franklin St.

The structure in West Broadway was more typical of Manhattan els, with the support structure below rail level. There were stretches of third track south of this point.

The vintage wooden house between the tracks has the control levers for the switches, visible through its windows. The two lampposts on the right have very different tops. One or both needed parts replaced over the years.

76-5 and 76-6. Trinity Place looking downtown from Cortlandt St station.

I was able to identify this two ways. First, in 76-5, the building a block ahead on the right, with a prominent cornice, is still standing at the southwest corner of Liberty Street. Second, in 76-6 the end of Trinity Place at Morris St is marked by the tall building straight ahead in the distance.

The els had semaphore signals to the end. They were lower quadrant signals in which a low position meant clear and a horizontal position meant stop. The double signal here shows the main or straight route over the diverging route. As you can see from the position of the switch itself, the straight route is clear.

76-7. Trinity Place looking downtown from the uptown platform at Rector Street station.

A block away is the end of Trinity Place at Morris St. Some Sixth Avenue trains terminated here, and some continued to South Ferry by going around to the right of the building seen straight ahead at Morris St.

The footbridge led into an arcade in a building on the left that led to Broadway, one block to the left, all under cover.

The under-platform ad, center, was for 'Old Drum Brand Blended Whiskey'.

76-8. Trinity Place looking uptown from Rector Street station. On the right is the graveyard behind Trinity Church (which faces Broadway, one block to the right).

I haven't scanned any more of the negatives yet. More to come!


  1. What a great acquisition you have there.

    The 33rd St (Greeley Sq) Station was equipped with a overhead bridge because there was a direct entry from Gimbels Dept Store to the downtown platform. See ""

  2. I am the person who provided the negatives, and based on what Mr. Brennan has acomplished with them , I am compelled to state that I cound not placed the collection in more worthy hands.

    I am very impressed by Mr. Brennan's skill in indentifying the photos , and no doubt he will be ablely assisted in this task by other dedicated and knowledgeable people.

    Good to know I have made ( I hope ) a valueable contribution - it's all the thanks I need and expect- the gratitude of those who collect and preserve historical material on the history of the NYC transist system.

    Thanks, PATTBAA ( Proud And Thankfull --- )

  3. Added 77-2. It's so dark I left it out originally, but I changed my mind.

  4. I was examining picture 76-1 more closely. I believe that this image depicts the East end of the 8th Ave Station looking East. The turret on the right side of the picture is on the Manhattan Storage Bldg at 7th Ave and 53rd St. See "". The 53rd St station was a standard two outboard platform station with a center passing track. What is seen in image 76-1 is the two track structure speading out to three tracks and the switches to access the center track. I hope that a track view of the 8th Ave station turns up in one of the new sets.

  5. Thanks, Charlie. I edited the comment for 76-1. From holding negatives up to the light, I think there might be a picture of the Eighth Ave station coming up.

  6. some of these 6th avenue el pictures [plus many others] can be found at

    that same source also has web sites for the 2nd, 3rd and 9th avenue els:

    another source for New York el pictures is

    [the photos posted on these sites vary greatly in image quality and amount of documentation]

  7. I so greatly appreciate all these el photos and descriptions. I have been lazily researching the West Side lines for the past ten years, anticipating a book-length work, such as has been done for the East Side and Brooklyn els, but between this blog and the sites mentioned above, there is really no need. The photos are outstanding, the descriptions eloquent and detailed, and my nights have been spent happily perusing them for the past week--since I've discovered them. I don't know that searching the recent Watson archive arrival at the NYC Transit Museum would come up with anything more spectacular. The scenes on the Sixth Ave. line in particular give me goosebumps, as my office for the last twenty years is in the Bigelow building across from the Jefferson Market Library.

    One question I do have, though. I have been looking for a copy somewhere of a station-size Manhattan Railway map. I have been told, by Bob Presbey among others, that these had a list of marker lamps for all the els. Do any copies yet exist? I don't think the Transit Museum has one. If one were available, it would be wonderful to post it here. It must be quite something, if it is anything like the BRT station-size map from 1920 I have hanging in my living room.

    Thanks so very much for your exquisite collections and historical elucidations.

  8. I've been searching to identify a gelatin silver photograph, dated 1943, of a young African American gentleman in US Naval attire.

    The text on his "US Navy" cap reads backwards, whereas the hand printed "Daisy Studio Memphis 1943" label, in the lower right, reads correctly.

    Searches on the internet were leading to some interesting off-topic trivia, but not so useful for locating further information to identify the photographer, locate history on the Daisy Studio in Memphis, or to determine the camera that may have been used to make the shot.

    Then I decided to do a search by the photo image size, to see if I could locate a chart that referenced early film formats to respective cameras.

    This is how I landed on your blogsite.

    From the notations you've posted, it looks that this photo may have been produced with '116'film, as the image measures 2.5 x 4.25 inches, less a sixteenth of an inch on the height.

    The valuable details provided on the Manhattan images suggest also that this is likely a contact print from a negative made with a Brownie camera, or by a camera that used '116' film.

    Many thanks for sharing the information.

  9. I identified the 116 size from a chart on Wikipedia,, and went on from there to see what cameras used that size. There's also a 616 format with the same size image.

    I'm surprised that a professional studio would make a print wrong side up.

  10. Bob Osman: I've never seen one of the station maps.

    For all: the first car of a train displayed a pair of marker lights on the roof. Each light could show one of four colors, for 16 combinations. I think the main purpose was for tower operators to route approaching trains, but knowledgeable passengers could use the system too.

    1. Indeed! Chicago's El trains use the same system to this day: there are two arrays of four lights on each side of the front car, and each of the sixteen combinations corresponds to a line and directon.

  11. Wonderful series!! There is a electric rail transit group called the Electric Railroaders' Association ( which has a library of historical photos of USA operations. In addition host a larget part of their site to the New York Transit System.